Seeing Feedback in a Positive Light

Editor's note: In this, the final part of his series on how communication relates to firefighter safety, Tom LaBelle looks at the process of gaining feedback from department members.

By Tom LaBelle 

Related Articles in Series:
 Safety and Communication: How to be a Good Listener
 Medium of the Message
 Communicating Under Stress: Lessons from Flight 1549
 Clear Vision, Clear Message
Sending the Right Message
 Communicating Safety
Feedback often has negative connotations in our language. Feedback on a radio or electronic system is not a good thing. And often we think of feedback in the same terms as back talk. But in terms of communicating with others, if we're not open to feedback, we haven't finished communicating. In fact, we've probably sold our message, and the receiver, short.

When sending a message, you've hopefully taken time to consider what you want to communicate, what medium you're communicating in and who the receiver of the message actually is. But have you considered feedback as a vital part of the process?

Feedback allows us as officers to know how our message is understood. It can be the only way we know how the receiver has interpreted our message. Sometimes we may discover that we need to state our message again, or in a different way or medium to make our meaning clear.

What is often difficult for many of us to do is take the responsibility for our message. "I'm an officer and I gave an order — 'nuff said." But in reality, your guys might not have understood what you mean. If you want them to do what you want, you better make sure they understood you.

Now don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting we need to sit around at every discussion and hold hands and sing. But what I am suggesting is that when something is really important, even on the fireground, feedback is important and can be vital toward firefighter safety.

A good example of the need for feedback is an after-action critique or review where we can see the impact our SOPs and drills have. Did everyone do what we expected them to do? If so, that's positive feedback. If not then you'll know your message didn't get across.

I've learned two important things regarding feedback. First, when you solicit it, you better take it. When you get feedback, you really do need to listen. If you don't, people will quickly become aware of the fact and shut down the feedback system as they’ll just think it’s a waste of time. You must also develop a level of trust so that people know that if they are giving you good feedback, you won't hold it against them.

Second, good feedback actually allows us to continue to keep providing better service to our citizens and better support to our fellow firefighters. Feedback can lead to updated SOPs/SOGs, new training techniques or simply a new internal policy. Essentially a team that knows it can respond proactively to your messages can enable to you to become a better officer and make the fire service a safer place to be.

So, after speaking of feedback, I'd like some as well. Most of my articles create an e-mail or two and comments, but more are welcome. Share your thoughts and experiences.

About the author

Sponsored by Globe

Tom LaBelle is an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has worked for the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to that he served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He is a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee and is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. "The Butcher's Bill," originates from the British military’s post-battle evaluation of if strategic and tactical objectives were met and the numbers killed and wounded. This they called "The Butcher's Bill." Chief LaBelle can be reached at

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